NATO delays in delivering tanks and other armored vehicles, as well as longer-range missiles and combat aircraft have hampered Ukrainian plans to launch new offensives to force Russian forces out of more Ukrainian territory. Russia is taking advantage of this by using its few remaining offensive units to make small territorial gains and promote this as major victories.
For Vladimir Putin, his war in Ukraine can continue as long as he has enough money to support it. Oil income is way down because of sanctions. Despite that Russia can still export oil but at discounts of up to 45 percent. This can (according to Russian officials) go on for about three years and then the National Wealth Fund, a reserve of gold and foreign currencies that supports the value of the ruble, will be “officially” gone (much has been frozen in Western banks by sanctions and will instead probably end up being used to rebuild Ukraine). Emptying that fund this way makes it nearly impossible to borrow money. Meanwhile sanctions and costs of the war have increased unemployment and poverty rates.
Putin calls on Russians to exercise the traditional forbearance under difficult conditions. This got Russia through World War II and years of communist misrule. The costs were high. World War II cost Russia 18 percent of its population with enormous damage to the economy and infrastructure. Communist corruption and inability to manage the economy eventually led to the dissolution of the century’s old Russian empire in 1991. Putin describes the war in Ukraine as an internal matter for a Russian government that considers the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union as illegitimate and a great mistake. The problem is that none of the new nations created from the dissolution want to return to being imperial vassals. Putin was surprised at the Ukrainians’ resistance and, rather than accept the truth, insisted that the Ukrainians had become corrupted by NATO who persuaded them to fight the Russian liberation effort. Ukrainians old enough to remember life in Soviet Ukraine recognize Putin’s version of the situation as the same delusional beliefs that caused the Soviet Union to fall apart in 1991.
It’s another example of those who refuse to learn from history and are condemned to repeat it. Ukrainians recognize this and a growing number of Russians do as well. After losing about seven million Russians who left Russia permanently since Putin took power, Putin now restricts who can leave the country. In response to that, Russians are sneaking out of the country despite the risk of arrest and prison or getting killed by border guards with orders to shoot anyone caught crossing illegally and refusing to stop. So far a majority of Russians have put up with this mistreatment but the situation is a replay of the late 1980s and few Russians want that. This includes a growing number of wealthy Russians (the oligarchs) who have the means to bring Putin down if enough of them unite in such a risky effort.
Putin is moving to cripple the opposition by trying to limit the ability of many Russian Internet-based war correspondents to visit the war zone. His generals are cooperating with this although most of the troops are not. Russians “mobilized” into the military during 2022 are poorly trained, led and supplied. The result has been a lot of soldiers who refuse to act like soldiers. Russia lost most of its combat officers early in the war and many non-combat officers (including doctors) ordered to replace those losses were not effective. Russia has no veteran NCOs and in desperation is offering officer commissions to act like an officer. This has not worked out because the new officers found that the senior officers are more concerned with keeping their jobs than taking care of their subordinates. Russia is running out of capable and loyal soldiers willing to fight and die for Putin.
Russia is also running out of generals because nine have died so far during visits to the front to see for themselves what is happening and why. Accurate news from the front is still available from the Internet-based reporters. Despite that, Putin recently replaced the senior generals running the Ukraine operations with ones who believe only Russian offensive action will work for Russia in Ukraine. Remaining on the defensive in order to wait out the Ukrainians is something Putin realizes he literally cannot afford.
Putin plays down the problems with an offensive strategy. For example, when Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022 it never expected to run out of ammunition. The war was not over in a few months and, because of that, Russia did run out of artillery munitions by the end of 2022 while Ukraine was supplied by NATO with massive amounts of 155mm artillery ammunition. Russia’s production of artillery ammunition continues but it is not enough to match what Ukraine is receiving from NATO nations. Ukraine has also revived its artillery munitions production of 152mm shells. This is the caliber used by Russian-designed artillery which Ukraine still has some of. NATO’s current munitions are more effective and reliable than Russian-made projectiles. For Ukraine to push the Russians out of its territory it must attack and that requires more artillery support than defense.
The NATO countries supplying all this ammunition have a problem because they eventually ran through most of what they had available. The United States supplied most of it and now has to replace its war reserves stockpiled for a major war. While European NATO nations don’t have to worry about their major threat, Russia, while they rebuild their war reserves, the Americans have to plan for potential conflicts elsewhere, like China, North Korea and Iran. The Americans can still do so because supporting Ukraine does not degrade American naval or air power. A war with China would not become more difficult because of American military aid to Ukraine. The same is true for potential conflicts with China, North Korea or Iran as both of them have plenty of powerful local near-peer opponents who would be American allies in such conflicts, i.e., South Korea, Japan, the Arab gulf states and Israel, who can deal with China, Iran or North Korea given American and naval support. American ground forces are also available for a Pacific campaign, but cannot use artillery munitions as heavily as they would prefer.
The U.S. found that it takes several years to ramp up production of artillery munitions and five or more years of increased production to restore the reserves. Munitions are still being sent to Ukraine, but not in the massive quantities seen during the first eight months of the war. Ukraine has managed to repair its own production facilities after Russia damaged them early in the war and is now manufacturing a lot of the basic small arms, artillery and mortar ammunition its troops use. While NATO nations have sent Ukraine most of the available munitions as well as a lot of weapons and combat or support vehicles, this is justified by the fact that NATO exists to protect NATO members from a Russian attack. The Russians did attack, but started with Ukraine, which wanted to join NATO, before moving on to nearby NATO nations. Russia has wrecked its military power and economy with this invasion of Ukraine, and won’t recover for a long time.
Ammunition is not the only item Russia does not have enough of. Adequate training for its troops, especially the new ones, is lacking. This is not the case with the Ukrainian forces, which received training from NATO countries since 2015 and that increased in 2022. For example, the United States set up a training program that trained up to 800 Ukrainian troops a month. Until 2022 the Americans were only training about 300 Ukrainian soldiers each month. Since February 2022 the U.S. has trained 3,100 Ukrainian soldiers. All this training concentrates on teaching Ukrainian troops to use weapons or equipment sent to Ukraine. For example, this program trained 610 Ukrainian artillerymen on how to use the HIMARS vehicle that carries and launches six GMLRS missiles. The fire control system of the HIMARS vehicle is somewhat complex. This HIMARS training enabled the Ukrainian crews to use the GMLRS missiles with devastating effect.
The new expanded program will train infantry units to handle more complex battlefield tactics. From 2015 to February 2022, American instructors trained 0ver 27,000 Ukrainian troops at a Ukrainian army base. After the invasion the American trainers withdrew and the training continued, on a smaller scale, in NATO bases in Germany.
Britain has used a thousand trainers to train nearly 10,000 Ukrainian troops in the last six months of 2022. Britain will train another 20,000 Ukrainian troops in Britain during 2023. Other nations have also contributed trainers to this effort. The Ukrainians appreciate this training effort and it makes a difference on the battlefield. This is especially true because Russia is sending more troops to Ukraine who have had little or no training. That means the Russians suffer higher casualties and the Ukrainians lose far fewer men. Ukrainian troops have been quick learners and know that success learning this material is a matter of life or death. The NATO nations have been making notes of how well and quickly the Ukrainians absorb this training, and used it to improve NATO training methods. NATO has long been getting useful feedback from Ukrainian troops about how well the training and the equipment works. Several NATO nations are sending Ukraine a hundred or more Leopard 2 tanks and the United States is sending some M1 tanks. Several countries are sending IFVs (Infantry Fighting Vehicles) and other light armored vehicles that typically accompany tanks. NATO and the Ukrainians develop shorter courses enabling troops familiar with one model of tank or IFV to transition to another similar vehicle. All this training gives Ukrainian forces a major advantage over the Russians, where most of the troops have little training or advanced tech and suffer from low morale and poor leadership. That sort of thing makes a big difference in combat but is often discounted during peacetime.
Vladimir Putin’s obsession with conquering Ukraine is aimed at acquiring more sufficiently ethnic Russians (which Ukrainians qualify as) to keep Russia Russian. The 2020 Russian census showed that the percentage of ethnic Russians had declined from 77.78 percent to 71.7 percent since 2010, even though it defined the two million Ukrainians (many ethnic Russians or Tatars) in Crimea as Russians because Putin had unilaterally declared that occupied (since 2014) Crimea was now part of Russia. The decline in ethnic Russians is largely because of a low birth rate and a growing number of ethnic Russians leaving Putin’s Russia. Over seven million ethnic Russians have left Russia since Putin took power in 1999. This happened because Putin mismanaged the economy and turned democratic Russia back into something like the failed Soviet Union. Putin believes that reviving the Soviet Union would be a good thing. It’s not enough to turn democratic Russia back into a police state with a corrupt and inefficient economy. The Soviet Union was an empire which lost half its population and much of its territory when it fell apart in 1991. Putin prospered as a citizen of the Soviet Union because he was a KGB officer. The KGB was a secret police/CIA type organization that was well paid and immune from arrest by anyone except another KGB officer. KGB officers were one of the few groups in the Soviet Union who had power and prosperity.
January 25, 2023: American and German leaders abandoned their refusal to send Ukraine tanks and have agreed to send tanks immediately and continue sending this until Ukraine has all it needs to drive Russian forces out of Ukraine and end the war. While most politicians and Americans in general backed sending Ukraine the M1, senior military officials insisted that the Ukrainians won’t learn to use the M1s quickly enough to make a difference. The Ukrainians disagreed and pointed to many recent examples of their quickly adapting to new weapons systems in terms of operators and maintainers. The American opposition is coming mostly from the same experts who initially predicted that the larger and better equipped Russian force would soon defeat the Ukrainians. It was not a complete surprise that the Americans announced shortly after saying the 31 M1 tanks would be delivered within weeks, now claim that it will take months. Meanwhile German Leopards are already in Ukraine and it is somewhat surprising that the Americans suddenly can’t find 31 operational M1 tanks for Ukraine. The United States has thousands of M1 tanks in reserve. Currently over 2,000 M1 tanks are in use by U.S. Army units. Some M1s are with American units already in Europe. There are also over 3,000 M1s held in reserve. These are not the latest models but were seen as adequate replacements for M1 tanks lost in some future conflict. That conflict is going on now in Ukrainian except that, because Ukraine is not a NATO member, Ukrainian troops are willing to do all the fighting if NATO continues sending all the weapons and munitions they need, including tanks designed and built to defeat a Russian attack on NATO.
The excuses for not sending 31 promised M1 tanks are nothing new, despite the fact that there are currently three American armored brigades in Europe, each with 87 operational M1 tanks. The Ukrainians know this, as do the Poles who are sending their Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine. Apparently the closer you are to Russia the more you realize how real; the threat is. Americans have already stalled on sending some weapons, like longer range missiles and any tanks at all, for fear of angering the Russians and triggering an expanded war. That has not happened and the Russians have taken unprecedented losses. Germany had a similar situation but was willing to allow other NATO members, like Poland, to send their Leopard 2 tanks anyway, without reference to what the Americans do with their M1s. Britain ignored American misgivings and sent fourteen of their similar Challenger 2 tanks. The problem is that there are thousands of unused Leopard 2s and M1 tanks available but only a few hundred Challenger 2s. Britain could not afford to build as many tanks as Germany and the Americans, and simply didn't have many to send. Germany finally heeded the pleas of Poland, the Baltic States and Ukraine by no longer trying to block Leopard 2s from going to Ukraine. Poland borders Ukraine and has been preparing to move the tanks into Ukraine. The only NATO nation with M1 tanks is Poland, which ordered 250 and has already received seven to be used for training crews and maintainers. Poland has 247 Leopard 2s and a dozen are being sent to Ukraine immediately for training crews and maintainers. Some of that training may already have taken place in Poland. Sending Leopard 2s to Ukraine is a popular move to most Poles, who see themselves as next on the Russian invasion list. The Ukrainian can stop the Russians sooner with the tanks. Russia continues to make vague threats of reprisals if NATO “escalates” the situation by sending tanks. Ukrainians regard these as empty threats. Russia has already thrown everything it has at Ukraine and failed. The Russians are planning a Spring Offensive with new troops who are poorly trained, led and armed. This won’t succeed but it will get more Ukrainians killed and delay the expulsion of Russians from all Ukrainian territory. The Polish Leopard 2s enable Ukraine to hit the Russians first and speed up the end to Russian control of any Ukrainian territory. Ukraine will have about a hundred M1s, Leopard 2s and Challenger 2s within a month or so. NATO nations are also sending several hundred lighter armored vehicles for infantry and reconnaissance. Some Leopard 2s have already arrived in Ukraine for crew training. Ukraine was apparently already selecting potential crew and maintainers and providing them with detailed data on operating and maintaining M1s and Leopard 2s. Ukraine has also been training pilots for F-16 and A-10 aircraft. In 2023 the U.S. revealed that it was prepared to supply Ukraine with F-16s, but these will not arrive until late 2023.
January 21, 2023: The Russian government increased the legal maximum number of its active-duty military personnel from 1,013,628 to 1,150,628 personnel. It is unlikely that this number will ever be reached. At the end of 2021 the Russian ground forces had about 400,000 men while the navy and air force each had about 150,000. About a third of air force personnel were paratroopers or air mobile infantry. The navy had about 12,000 marines, who guarded naval bases in peacetime. That means the heavy Russian losses since the invasion began, and failure to mobilize many replacements, reduced the army to about 250,000 personnel. The airborne forces and marines also suffered heavy losses but more of them are still in service. Heavy combat losses reduced the personnel strength so sharply because the Russian army has far fewer soldiers providing logistic and transportation services. These are provided by government or private contractors who assemble and move supplies close to the combat zone, where military trucks and drivers move the supplies to army-maintained collection points or the combat units. This works inside Russia where the state-controlled railroads are equipped for operation by civilians who are trained for such support. For a major war against Russia, civilian trucks and drivers are mobilized for this. Such a mobilization disrupts the economy but that is seen as necessary t0 defend Russia. This is why the Ukrainian invasion was not called a war but an “internal operation” in what Russia declared was Russian territory controlled by rebels. Russia did not expect the Ukrainians’ massive resistance or their destruction of so many Russian trucks and supply collection points. This dramatically weakened Russian supply capabilities inside Ukraine, especially after Ukraine received guided GMLRS rockets that hit Russian supply depots because of information supplied by Ukrainians or NATO supplied aerial and satellite surveillance. Russian forces inside Ukraine are chronically short of ammunition, food, fuel and much else because of these Ukrainian tactics. Resorting to looting civilian supplies in occupied areas only partially replaces the supplies destroyed in transit or stored inside Ukraine.
Russian armed forces were supposed to have over a million men but that goal has never been met and at the end of 2021 the total was about 750,000. That is now about 400,000, including the air force and navy. Mobilizations of new conscripts and men who had served the one year of conscript service failed to replace all the losses, in part because the mobilized men knew that the war in Ukraine was not going well and most men sent there had little training, equipment or leadership. Most of the junior officers were killed or disabled during the first months of the war and replacements take months to train. Peacetime officer training takes years and now there is a shortage of trainers for troops and officers because most of the existing ones were sent to Ukraine as replacements for the catastrophic losses the Ukrainians were inflicting. Ukraine had 250,000 active-duty troops in early 2022 and within months had half a million more in form of volunteers and conscripts. Normally Ukrainian troops receive a lot more training than their Russian counterparts but in the first months of the war, untrained Ukrainians were used to halt the invasion. Since then, Ukrainian troops get more training and are led by experienced officers and NCOs in combat. Ukrainian troops don’t suffer from supply shortages and suffer relatively fewer casualties than the Russians.
January 20, 2023: The American military has finally accepted Ukrainian estimates of Russian losses. While the Ukrainians believe Russia has lost 180,000 troops in Ukraine, the Americans will only acknowledge 100,000 as well enough documented to accept. The Ukrainians also point that their “troops lost” total does not mean dead, but no longer in the Russian military because they were captured or deserted. Ukraine considers the deserters a real plus for the Ukrainian cause because the deserters will often return home or get in touch and provide a more accurate account of what is really happening in Ukraine. The deserter version is far more glum than the official government reports. The high actual losses have led to an increase of active opposition to the war. This is especially true with young men likely to be conscripted soon. The resistance increasingly means disrupting Russian railroad operations. There are a lot of easy ways to do this and this information is widely circulated inside Russia. Damaging or disabling the thousands of electronic boxes found throughout the railway system. Putting these out of commission is easy if you know how and it means a stretch of rail is not available for days or weeks.
January 19, 2023: The central African state of Mali received a shipment of aircraft from Russia. There were two Mi-8 transport helicopters and eight fixed-wing Su-25 ground attack aircraft and L-39 trainers, which can also be armed with bombs and serve as a ground attack aircraft. Mali did not disclose how many Su-25s or L-39s they received.
January 18, 2023: Russia’s mysterious special purpose nuclear submarine Belgorod has shown up again. Commercial satellite photos showed the Belgorod on the surface off the northeastern Russian coast, where several ports used by the Northern Fleet are located. Russia reported in early January that Belgorod was testing mockups of its primary weapon, the Poseidon torpedo, to make sure they could be carried and launched by Belgorod. These tests also confirmed that the nuclear propulsion system worked as expected. Belgorod is a larger and heavier Oscar class sub but it still uses the same power plant as the other Oscars. The Poseidon torpedo is too large to be carried inside Belgorod and launched from a torpedo tube, and are instead affixed to the underside of the sub and released by the sub commander. The dummy Poseidon is the same size and weight of the real one. The size and weight of the Poseidon attached to the bottom of the Belgorod changes the performance characteristics of the Belgorod and tests were done to note and fix any problems. The actual Poseidon torpedoes, which are described as a doomsday weapon, are being built and not expected to be ready for another year or two. Four to eight Poseidon’s will arm the Belgorod. Each Poseidon carries a very powerful “Cobalt” nuclear warhead designed to release more radiation than normal. Poseidon’s are also nuclear-powered and purportedly programmed to travel autonomously to enemy coastal cities, detonate underwater and somehow create large waves that cause enormous damage and spread radioactivity along the nearby coasts. The Poseidon can travel thousands of kilometers underwater on its own, at very high speed for a torpedo because of its nuclear reactor, before detonating the two-megaton warhead while on the seabed of the continental shelf. Such doomsday weapons would allegedly be used only if Russia lost a nuclear war and would punish its victorious opponents even more. In that sense Poseidon is a psychological terror weapon, something the Russians have long been fond of. It’s an expensive obsession because creating the Belgorod and Poseidon torpedoes and their Cobalt radiation warheads cost billions of dollars for a weapon that may never be used and if it does get used, may not work as expected. After all, how do you test the Cobalt super bomb to confirm that it works?
January 17, 2023: Vladimir Putin has again reshuffled Russia’s senior leadership, especially the ones controlling operations in Ukraine. The new commanders are not expected to change much as the same sort of leadership replacement occurred several times since the war began 11 months ago without improving troop training or tactics. The only known exceptions are the private armies like the Wagner Group and Chechen volunteers who are recruited, trained and led by Chechen leaders that Putin trusts. Wagner has had some success because they are allowed to recruit from prisons. Putin quietly allowed Wagner to give pardons to such volunteers, which meant they were free if they survived six months of combat. Most don’t, but over 50,000 volunteered anyway. Wagner and the Chechens were also allowed to recruit Russian veterans, especially those with combat experience, and pay them more than Russian troops receive. These two mercenary forces report to Putin, who must personally approve what operations they take part in. Russian generals in charge of the forces in Ukraine must accept this and make the most of it. Despite all this, the two mercenary forces have not achieved any notable victories but have made progress in areas where they are involved. Most other Russian troops in Ukraine are on the defensive and taking heavy casualties doing that. Recently the Wagner forces were replaced by Russian airborne troops who had also been operating in Donetsk province for over a month. These airborne troops are one of the few reliable forces Russia has in Ukraine. The paratroopers cannot replace losses as quickly as Wagner can and use tactics that minimize their losses.
Putin is trying to create a new force of Russian troops who are well trained and equipped. This takes time, and it may be months before these new forces are ready and sent to Ukraine. Ukrainian intelligence regularly reports on the progress of Russian forces in action or in training. Such reports can be independently verified with commercial satellite photos. The Ukrainians supply details to explain why things are happening and use a network of informants in Russian controlled territory to help with that. NATO supplied the Ukrainians with the results of more detailed air and satellite photos as well as radio intercepts. Ukraine continues to obtain useful information by monitoring Russian troops using their cell phones freely. Officially, Russia bans such use of cell phones but the Russian officers are unwilling to actively crack down on cell phone use because Russian troops do not have reliable military radios and not many of those. Putin and his generals also missed what happened when NATO personnel served in Ukraine between 2014 and 2021 when they taught Ukrainian officers how to become a NATO-compatible force. This turned out to be a major advantage because the Russians were still using their rigid Soviet-era command and troops control procedures. By 2021 the Ukrainians had adopted more flexible Western methods where junior commanders were trained to improvise when necessary. The only Russian troops who did any of that were spetsnaz (special operations) forces. Most Russian troops follow detailed orders and, when they encounter something not covered in their orders, they halt and wait for further instructions. The loss of specialists like artillery forward observers and similar specialists who accompany the combat troops was high during the first months of the war because Russian sent most of these specialists in with the invading combat troops so they could gain some low risk combat experience. These specialists were killed in large numbers along with the troops they accompanied. The dead included instructors from the schools that trained new specialists. Russia never had enough of these specialists, a bad habit their inherited from the Soviet Union era. Replacing the instructors takes a while and is another reason why replacement combat units not only take time to train, but will not have the support the pre-invasion units had. Ukrainian forces regularly exploited this. After nearly a year of fighting the Russians have not changed, even though the more flexible Ukrainians constantly win battles because of their initiative. One significant change Putin made was to settle a dispute between the Russian generals in Ukraine and the commander of the Wagner Group. Currently Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin is in trouble with his patron, Vladimir Putin, for feuding with Russian army commanders in Ukraine over credit for some recent victories. Prigozhin isn’t going to get fired but Putin sided with the army generals and had to publicly criticize Prigozhin to make sure everyone got the message about the limits of the Wagner Group forces in Ukraine. Wagner Group is a profitable international operation that reports directly to Putin. The Wagner Group was sent to Ukraine because the Russian army needed help, not competition. Prigozhin organized the largest Wagner Group force ever for the Ukraine operation and did it with money supplied by Putin. For the Ukraine operation Prigozhin assembled 10,000 of his usual military veterans and over 40,000 cheaper and less skilled convicts recruited from Russian jails. Putin took care of enabling that and the use of pardons for the convicts who joined. Some of the convicts had some military experience, most did not. They received six-month contracts of which some was devoted to brief but intense training, unlike most Russian troops which get no training at all. The convicts were not told that they were being used in high-risk operations under the supervision of veteran Wagner personnel. The few convict mercenaries who survived their contract received their pardons, and this was publicized to encourage the others. Word got around in prisons that signing on with Wagner was risky but that the pardons were real, as was the high-risk nature of working for Wagner. Most of those who did join later deserted rather than be killed in combat. Apparently most of the convicts recruited were lost to massive desertion as well as combat casualties. Despite that, during the last few months, the Wagner Group force was one of the few Russian units in Ukraine capable of defeating Ukrainian forces. The Ukrainians took fewer casualties but had to give ground against the Wagner force. The only other effective Russian forces in Ukraine were a few airborne units. Those were composed of well trained and led Russian troops that the army could not afford to lose in the kind of attacks the Wagner Group was making. Prigozhin made the mistake of criticizing the airborne troops, and army forces in general, for being less useful than the Wagner Force. Putin was putting a lot of time and money into training and equipping more Russian troops to join the airborne units in a few months for a major offensive. Prigozhin did not pay sufficient attention to this and his boss Putin was not pleased. The Ukraine Wagner Force will continue as part of a larger Russian army plan and its leader will obey army commands. Putin has also appointed a new general to command operations in Ukraine and the new commander believes offensive operations are the only way for Russia to win in Ukraine. As new Russian units are available, with better trained and equipped troops, they will be used to attack the Ukrainians, not just provide more effective defense against planned Ukrainian attacks.